Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case
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Rideau Hall, Monday, October 18, 2010
Good morning everyone! Welcome to Rideau Hall! Sharon and I are still getting used to calling this place home, but we do hope that you’ll feel at home here today! We are honoured to have you here with us and take part in this ceremony.
As you may know, my wife Sharon and I had the privilege of raising five children—all daughters. Not the Famous Five perhaps, but precious to us! And I have to tell you that being surrounded by women has been a wonderful experience—and a tremendous education. As I said in my installation speech, everything important that I’ve learned, I’ve learned from my children.
So it is particularly meaningful to me that my first awards ceremony as governor general should be one that continues the tradition of courage, integrity and hard work for girls and women.
It was on this date, in 1927, that the Minister of Justice presented a report regarding a petition submitted by the Famous Five—Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby.
The petition formally asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question: ‘Does the word “persons” include women.’ We all know what the Court answered.
Refusing to give in, the Famous Five took their case to the Privy Council of England, which, at the time, was Canada’s highest court of appeal.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Today we honour the five brave women who helped to write that history—and we do so by recognizing five women who are writing history of their own: Marie Louise Fish; Lucille Harper; Kerline Joseph; Anne Michaud; and Barbara Mowat.
Each of you, in your own way and in your own communities, is an heir of the Persons case. Like the Famous Five, you refused to accept the status quo. You pushed back against prejudice. Fought unfairness. And you envisioned a better world.
In bestowing these awards, we not only honour your achievements, we celebrate your spirit. A spirit that reminds all of us of our ability to rise to great challenges, to overcome great odds. A spirit that commits itself to something larger than one’s self. A spirit that knows that this great community of Canada can never achieve its destiny by sidelining half of its population.
None of us here today can know the personal struggles each of you has overcome. The obstacles you had to surmount. We can only admire your courage and tenacity, your determination and your caring.
After all, no one made you act. No one compelled you. You didn’t take up your struggles because success was certain—you did so because your cause was right. Fired by the same sense of fairness that drove the Famous Five all those years ago.
Sadly, 81 years after becoming full “persons”, women are still not seen as full partners. For all of the progress we’ve made, your work highlights the distance still to be travelled, the battles still to be waged.
In awarding you these medals, we are reminded that the better Canada we seek is a goal, not a given. There is nothing preordained about its achievement. To get there we must continue to work. Struggle. Sacrifice. Each generation must fight anew for what is right and strive for what is just.
Writing many years after their victory, Nellie McClung said, “In Canada we are developing a pattern of life and I know something about one block of that pattern... I helped make it.”
All of you know something about the pattern we are developing in this country because you, too, helped make it. And because of you, we live in a country that is fairer, better—and more just.
On behalf of Sharon and our daughters—and all Canadians—I thank you.